The anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp is an occasion to remind ourselves that we cannot build the future without remembering the past

This year’s observance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday (January 27) — the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp — comes at a time when there are reminders all around us of the dangers of forgetting. This year marks two decades since the genocide in Rwanda. Conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic have taken on dangerous communal dimensions. Bigotry still courses through our societies and our politics. The world can and must do more to eliminate the poison that led to the camps.

I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau last November. A chill wind was blowing that day; the ground was rocky underfoot. But I had an overcoat and sturdy shoes; my thoughts went out to those who had had neither: the Jews and other prisoners who once populated the camp. I thought of those captives standing naked for hours in icy weather, torn from their families and shorn of their hair as they were readied for the gas chambers. I thought of those who were kept alive only to be worked to death. Above all, I reflected on how unfathomable the Holocaust remains even today. The cruelty was so profound; the scale so large; the Nazi world-view so warped and extreme; the killing so organised and calculated by nature.

The barracks at Birkenau seemed to stretch to the horizon in every direction — a vast factory of death. Marian Turski, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz and is today the vice-president of the International Auschwitz Committee, walked me through the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate — this time in freedom. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a survivor of Buchenwald and now the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, stood with me on the ramp where the transport trains unloaded their human cargo, and recounted the traumatic moment when the swift flick of an SS commander’s index finger meant the difference between life and death. I grieve for those who died in the camps, and I am awed by those who lived — who bear sorrowful memories and have shown the strength of the human spirit.

I was also accompanied by students from the International Youth Meeting Centre in Oswiecim, who work to build bridges among people and nations. L’dor v’dor, Marian Turski said to me — Hebrew for “from generation to generation”, the passing on of wisdom. We cannot build the future without remembering the past; what happened once can recur. Combating hatred is among the cardinal missions of the U.N. Our human rights mechanisms work to protect people. Our special courts and tribunals strive to combat impunity, deliver justice and deter violations. Our new “Rights Up Front” effort seeks to strengthen early action to prevent grave abuses of human rights.

For almost a decade, the “the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme” has been working with teachers and students on all continents to promote tolerance and universal values. The programme’s newest educational package, produced in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, will help to introduce Holocaust studies into classrooms in countries ranging from Brazil and Nigeria to Russia and Japan.

A few steps from the crematorium at Auschwitz, I took a moment to myself for reflection. I touched a barbed wire fence — no longer electrified but still sharp and intimidating. I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of what had happened within, and humbled by the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers and leaders of many nations who defeated the Nazi menace.

My hope is that our generation, and those to come, will summon that same sense of collective purpose to prevent such horror from happening again anywhere, to anyone or any group, and build a world of equality for all.

(Courtesy: UN Information Centre for India and Bhutan. Ban-Ki-moon is the Secretary-General of the United Nations.)

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